Paris. Great culinary capital which according to some, has recently lost its lead to places like Copenhagen, London and San Sebastian. Undoubtedly still the leader according to the Michelin guides, with most stars of any other city in Europe and the West (Tokyo has more). Craddle of technique, and place where a great number of “super star” chefs have either trained or worked.
A recent phenomenon leads me to argue against the naysayers. Paris is no longer known just for the old, institutional, 3 star, white glove restaurants that have made it famous over the years, but is now home to a number of smaller, lower profile places which are the result of many starred trained young chefs that have opted to go independent, making for a powerful combination of smaller scale, and therefore cheaper places with the same technique you would expect at a 3 star place, and in most cases similar quality ingredients.
As noted on the comments from LAX2MIA on my Paris Analysis, and as I was able to recently witness personally, this makes for a great time to visit Paris if you are a lover of great food. By combining meals at these newer “modern bistros” with meals at the higher end institutions, one can get a full range of what is available in the city and potentially have a flawless culinary trip.
The 22 places I ate at were picked by myself after analyzing what the local experts where saying, where they were eating at, plus taking into consideration the opinion of formal critics and guides like the Michelin Guide. This lead me to places like yam Tcha (ergagit’s favorite!), Spring, Septime and Frenchie. Other places I chose simply due to their availability on a weekend (something rather hard to do in Paris, since many restaurants only work Mon-Fri), and some in order to get exposure to household names I hadn’t experienced before (Savoy, Robuchon).
All in all, I only had one disappointing meal and discovered a few casual places worth mentioning. This is another great thing about Paris, you are likely to stumble across the greatest Madeleine you have ever eaten just by wondering down a street within Le Marais.
The other impressive thing worth mentioning is how cheap it is to eat well in Paris, relative to other parts of the West. Some of it has to do with method: you see a price on a menu and it is final. No added tax, no added service charge, no need to leave tip (it is custom, and there is no place on your credit card receipt for it). So when you go to a place like Abri for lunch and you pay 22Euros pp (28$) for a 3 course “carte blanche” tasting menu (with Amuse Bouche), that’s it. Final. A similar quality meal in New York would cost at least 80$ pp after you add tax, service and tip. The other great aspect of Paris that makes it a steal in most cases is the unilateral presence of the “fix prix”. I think the french invented the fix prix and specially for lunch at the higher end places, they were bargains. When you account bread, amuse bouches, petit fours and parting gifts, paying less the 100Euros for a lunch consisting of starter, main course and dessert at a 3 star, 5 red knife/fork 200 year old place like Ledoyen is a steal. Vive La Formule!
I’m going to speculate as to why Paris is so cheap when it comes to fine dining and I’m going to blame it on Seasonality. Throughout every single meal we had there was a commonality of ingredients that were in season, the beetroot, the squash, the scallops, the chestnuts to name a few. By respecting the ingredients of the season, restaurants seem to keep costs down by using what is available locally, fresh, and instantly, keeping to a minimum the more expensive products from out of town. The real Farm to Table!
An exchange rate of $/Euro of 1.28 also helped since it has been as high as 1.65 in the past.
A word on reservations: some very popular places like Frenchie and Le Chateaubriand are no-gos without a reservation. We watched endless couples being turned away and these and other places like Le Chatomat. It is a lot of work, since there is no Open Table in France and few places offer online reservations. The working hours and voicemail greetings in french add complexity to the issue, but with some patience and a bit of local help (find a friend that lives there) any table can be booked, but you have to book them in advance. This is particularly necessary for the likes of yam’ Tcha, Frenchie, Septime, Le Chateaubriand, Abri and Chatomat.
The following is the complete list of places I went to, with a few comments. I have ranked them most memorable to most forgettable, and I have included at the end a list of places I couldn’t make it to but that will definitely be on my To Do list for the next visit. Each restaurant named is linked to the pictures at Flickr.
1. Arpege. Chef Alain Passard: Present. Well well. I don’t think there can be enough good things said about this place. Best restaurant in the world according to some, owned and led by the great Alain Passard, who ten years ago took a leap of faith and decided to ban red meat from his menu, replacing it with vegetables, all of which he exclusively grows for himself using century old techniques at 3 farms he owns in the outer skirts of Paris. It probably helps knowing the Chef at a place like this, since the interaction with Alain over dessert provides with an additional highlight, in combination to the numerous extras we were sent. I spent a week at Arpege in 2003 as part of the “fly on a wall” program from L’Ecole de Chefs available back then, and Alain remembered me well. The food was simply incredible, from the beetroot “sushi” we were greeted with, to the insanely good traditional Millefeuille passed around as dessert. The service was impeccable and personalized, and I can comfortably say it surpassed Per Se as the best meal I’ve had in recent memory. What Alain has done with vegetable here is unparalleled, and every bite just makes you wonder how the hell did he do this? The smokiness present throughout is particularly impressive, on most vegetables. His ultra slow cooking methods make for incredibly moist and soft proteins paired beautifully with inventive sauces and more of his golden vegetables. If you are ever in Paris and want to treat yourself, this is it. The lunch fix prix is 130 Euros, the most expensive of all the menus we tried, but well worth every cent.
2. Yam ‘Tcha. Chef: Adeline Grattard: Present . We had the highest of expectations from this place since it came out at the very top of my Paris Restaurant analysis, and also from the high props given by ER Gagit. Please also note that a few nights after our meal there, we casually bumped into the founders of Le Fooding at Le Chateaubriand, and they told us yam Tcha was their single best dinner of the year. They were met and surpassed with flying colors. I honestly was expecting a grubbier more street style informal dining experience. It was fine dining at its best, with every single of the 9 courses in the carte blanche blowing our minds. Chef Adeline is french and has a french culinary background but married a Chinese man and has been influenced by Asian flavours since. Her menu is Asian ingredients with French technique and then some. The best single dish of the entire trip I had at YamTcha, a suckling pig that melted, and I mean seriously melted in your mouth. It came with some spicy schezuan style eggplants. The first dessert, a vanilla ice cream inside a black sesame paste was a first for me and quite incredible. Dinner carte blanche was 100Euros pp, but there is a cheaper 60 Euros lunch option.
3. Agape Substance. Chef: David Toutain: Not Present (in Sinpagore). Unless you have the patience for ticket hunting and the pocket to get yourself to Alinea in Chicago, it is hard to experience in the US “El Bulli” type meals, where technique is taken to the limits and creativity is unhinged. You never thought this could go with that, you didn’t think that was edible, this looks like X but it is Y, etc. The tiny (and I mean tiny) Agape Substance gave us this pleasure, with a 12 course carte blanche menu that required the waiter’s explanation on every single stop. The flavor explosion on most of the bites was difficult to forget and undoubtedly never experienced before. The executive Chef, David Toutain, recently won the revelation chef of the year award at the Gastronomika event in Spain, and it is understandable why. David was the executive chef at L’Arpege when I was there in 2003, and then he was only 23. This is one to watch, and now even more since the news was recently broken that he is leaving Agape. Pork rinds with Caviar, Black Sesame cream with smoked eel, Uni with coffee, and some incredible flavors and textures on some more basic protein and vegetable combination such as the red mullet with the artichoke and the scallop with the broccoli. Lunch carte blanche was 100 Euros, and there is a cheaper version at 65 Euros with fewer courses.
4. Le Chateaubriand. Chef: Iñaki Aziparte: Present. When a restaurant rating source that has gained respect over the past years (San Pellegrino’s Best 100) says there is a restaurant in Paris that is better than any of the ones with Michelin Guide Stars, it has to draw some attention. A visit by Anthony Bourdain with Eric Ripert for the 100th Episode of No Reservations which resulted in words like “genius” being thrown around probably helps as well, so you cannot go to Paris and not try to get to experience dinner at Iñaki Aziparte’s Le Chateaubriand. Entering with some skepticism is unavoidable. The room is simple, the word on the street is the Chef has gotten arrogant since the San Pellegrino mention and the food has suffered. I am not sure why Michelin has decided to ignore Le Chateaubriand, I head the chef does not give them any respect, but they should because the food was impressive. Watercress was dressed with a buttery nut which paired magnificently with a snapper crudo and mushrooms, and the moroccan style curry which was used to flavor the main course (a succulent duck breast). All the way to the Anise spiced apple slices at the end, every course was impressive and you can understand why this restaurant has achieved such popularity. Dinner menu was 55Euros per person, one of the greatest bargains of the trip.
5. Le Grand Vefour. Chef: Guy Martin: Not Present. Oldest restaurant on record with more than 200 years of history within its walls. Napoleon used to dine here, and Victor Hugo was also a regular. The room is majestic and the service impeccable. The fact that Guy Martin is in the kitchen helps too. The food was amazing, respecting tradition but taking a few risks here and there, with tremendous flavor and presence. The fish courses were flaky and rarely had I tasted such flavorful Cod. Amazing. The foie was the best of the entire trip, and the amount of “fireworks” or petit-fours at the end was unparalleled, it included chocolates, gummies, marshmallows, their traditional sponge cake, and more. Lunch was 98 Euros pp.
6. Septime. Chef: Bertrand Grebaut: Present. One of the trip’s culinary highlights. Rustic room, fresh smells, good wine, great service, and blowout flavors from seasonal ingredients. What more can one ask for. Each dish in the 5 course carte blanche was screaming freshness and seasonal, particularly the beetroot salad and chestnut/squash starter. The dessert playing tribute to the squash in season through the use of the toasted seeds was sublime!. Septime is one of the leading “modern bistros” of the city, and a repeat visit is in the cards no doubt in the future. It takes reservations online, a plus. Carte Blanche for lunch menu was 33 Euros, another incredible bargain.
7. Frenchie. Chef: Gregory Marchand: Present. The buzz surrounding this place was insane, to the point where I had to ask a friend living in Paris to go in person and book the table for me, a few months before the trip. High expectations also given this, plus rave reviews elsewhere. We had an amazing dinner. Simple, flavorful. Some of the best bread we had anywhere, a great setting. This is really what this new movement of the new Bistro is all about, and Paris should be happy these are flocking up everywhere. The gooieness of the mushroom and egg / Chestnut dish was impressive, and so was the juiciness of the duck breast. This one came with one of my favorite sides, “trompettes de la mort”, some black wild mushrooms which was amazing. The softness of the flower like cheese was incredible, and the pairing of pear with chocolate was equally impressive. Dinner was 45 Euros pp.
8. Chez L’Ami Jean. Chef: Stephan Jego: Present. This was the first meal we had on the trip and one that set the stage for the amazing next 12 days. Chef Stephan is an act to watch on his own, loudly and energetically commanding the kitchen and interacting with nearby tables. We arrived early at 12m and Stephan was playing around with a giant langoustine and he decided to serve it and send it our way. What a treat!. Here I had my favorite starter of the trip, the “Os A Moelle” , or bone marrow. No wonder Bourdain says this would be his death row meal. This one was particularly fatty and flavorful, a delight in every bite. Amazing. Pheasant main course was equally amazing with a nice “touch” of the bird’s head sticking from outside a small bowl of broth and mushrooms. Jego’s touches. The table next to us was having the carte blanche, which we didn’t go for by mistake, and they were thrown all sorts of foie/pig bits/seafood combinations which had me drooling. A must for the next visit. It was here that we also had one of the best desserts of the entire trip, and gigantic bowl of rice pudding which I cannot explain how well it tasted and how creamy it was. Lunch was 42 Euros pp.
9. Abri: Chef: Katsuaki Okiyama: Present. One of the main pleasant surprises. “Hole in the wall” is a compliment to describe this location, we actually walked by it a few times before actually realizing it was indeed the place. Another child of the starred trained / going independent chef phenomenon, the obvious Asian influences of Chef Okiyama screamed our throughout this incredibly cheap tasting menu which impressed us at every level. The crispy chargrilled bits of pork chop where amazing, and so was the simplicity of the Pollack. A chocolate ending was well placed. Lunch was 22 Euros pp, the second cheapest fix prix meal we had.
10. Verjus: Chef: Braden Perkins: Present. Another phenomenon sweeping Paris is the presence of American chefs in the modern bistros. One of them is Braden Perkins, commanding the stoves at Verjus. Our dinner there was impressive, from the buttery salad green covered with shaved foie to the delicate sea bass, impressive grass fed beef with mushrooms and marrow crumbs. A very well thought out menu with some amazing creativity and flavours. If Parisians give these guys a chance, they are in for a treat (I suspect they don’t, since there wasn’t a single french person in the dining room). Another worth repeating. Dinner was 55 Euros pp.
11. Chatomat: Chefs: Alice Di Cagno et Victor Gaillard: Present! (They are 66% of the staff!). This was another, like Abri, “is it really here”? place which reaped great rewards once you are inside enjoying the food. It is located in a small quiet street in a strictly residential neighborhood. We were greeted by a small sample of potato puree with a few brussel srpout leaves and a white foam, which as soon as you put in your mouth you knew you were in for a treat. From then on it turned into one of the most enjoyable meals of all, with an amazing “Guemene” sausage nicely paired with celery puree and one of the best beef dishes I have had in recent memory to follow. It was an entrecot with some nicely charred red cabbage leaves, but the highlight was the small bowl of melt in your mouth caramelized onions and pumpkin sauce I was given as sides. Amazing. A lovely touch of lemon macaroons ended the meal nicely.
12. Ledoyen: Chef: Christian Le Squer: Not sure if present, CIA type kitchen. As I mentioned above there are more 3 Michelin Star restaurants in Paris than in any other Western city, so there are plenty to chose from. On top of that, almost all of them offer accessible (around 100Euros) lunch fix prix, which makes for a great way to visit and experience these places. About 2 weeks before my trip, a report in the Financial Times quoted Andy Hayler as the only living person that had visited every single 3 Star restaurant on the planet, and when pressed to pick one in France, he mentioned Ledoyen. This was one of the main reasons for choosing lunch at Ledoyen over L’Ambrosie, Alain Ducasse or others. The restaurant is impressive, housed in a building of its own that dates back 200 years or so. The entrance screams high end with red carpet, at least 5 persons at the greeting desk, and a dining room filled with what were either French politicians and businessmen or rich Asians. We were the odd man out no doubt. The food impressed us from the get go, with a tray of 4 different hors d ‘ouvres which had a strong technique presence and flavor, specially the cheese and truffle filled pillowy bread like one. The rest of the meal was really good, the pheasant breast particularly juicy and well paired with the peaches. The experience of eating at the dining room of Ledoyen actually makes up for any lack of impressiveness from the food. Considering the fact that perhaps the 3 star places are not offering their best dishes on the lunch fix prixes, it is probably worth visiting again for dinner or for a la carte feasting on some of the more ellaborate dishes. Overall a great meal, and quite the experience. Lunch was 105 Euros pp.
13. Guy Savoy: Chef: Guy Savoy: Not Present. It is not a surprise these super star super stretched chefs are not present at their flagship places anymore, since they have pretty well mastered the art of kitchen delegation. Guy Savoy was a great dinner, perfectly served, but given the presence of much better smaller scale modern bistros by the ones mentioned above, it is probably not a place where I would return unless it is another Guy Savoy somewhere else. The food was great, impressively presented and my beef course was truly succulent , “both ways” a grilled to perfection piece of chuck next to a small wheel shaped mound of braised chuck. As per the Maitre D’s suggestion we also had their “flagship” chicken dish which was cooked in a space like silver bag and brought to the table for proof of method I guess? The dish itself was not that impressive though. A wide range of petit-fours of all colors and shapes and sizes made up for a good but not great dinner. There was no nicely priced dinner “formule” (tasting menu was around 300 Euros pp), so we had a dish each, the chicken dish was 72 Euros and the beef dish was 88 Euros.
14. Benoit. Chef: Alain Ducasse, Not Present. This is one of the many places Alain has taken over, and not a place where you would expect to see him but a really nice french classic food place centrally located in St. Germain. The food was impeccable, really great actually and the setting ideal for a family style meal. The smoked fish starter on top of a perfect puff pastry crust was amazing, and so was my pork chop. Our waiter was probably the friendliest of them all, and according to him Federer and Nadal eat there every year!. I would recommend this place for a casual lunch in Paris anytime, specially with kids (something not many places are friendly too). As with many places, thousands of sweets flew in at the end! The best part…. At 36 Euros pp, the lunch deal was a steal.
15. Bistro Paul Bert. Chef: Unknown. A household name and another highly recommended place for the true french food experience. Everything was delicious, the scallops, the terrine, and the fries! Best in town I believe, and they made for a tremendously pleasant side to my Steak Au Poivre. One of my favorite foods of all time and one that I had to wait until the last day to eat at Paul Bert! Worth the wait. The soufflés at the end where ridiculously good. We shall be back no doubt. At 18 Euros pp this lunch was the greatest steal of them all!
16. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Chef: Joel Robuchon. Not Present. I actually had higher expectations from this Atelier, but was left with a disappointing impression as to the empire that has become Robuchon. I don’t have any other Robuchon experiences to compare, but the first impression was not good. I was expecting more punch, more flavor, more wowness from the world famous mashed potatoes (yes they were creamy but it’s not as if I would go there again just for the mashed potatoes, like I thought they would be). My beef course was actually rather poor in texture and flavor, and I tasted the other beef courses from my party and neither was impressive. For a name like that, I was expecting melt in your mouth steaks. The starters where equally meh, replicable elsewhere. Great soufflé for dessert though! There was no fix prix, each item was priced between 20-40 Euros.
17. La Dame de Pic. Chef: Anne-Sophie Pic. Not Present. We tried this place since it was brand new and since the chef has an outstanding CV, being the world’s greatest female chef according to Michelin. We had a decent meal, but nothing to write home about. It is down below in the ranking due to relative weakness versus other greater meals.
18. Spring. Chef: Daniel Rose: Present. Only down here for lack of relative power. Yes the meal was fine, but versus all of the above? No competition. A shame since this place came at the very top of my analysis, it is loved by every single food blogger, guide, local foodie I consulted. Maybe the chef wasn’t inspired that night, maybe he doesn’t give a damn anymore. Not worth going again and at 80 Euros pp, and again, vs. the above alternative, it was the only “expensive” meal we had.
19. Les Tablettes de Jean Louis Nomicos. Chef: Jean Louis Nomicos: Not Present. As with La Dame de Pic, great one Michelin Star restaurant, nice lunch, but no wow factor. At 42 Euros per person it was great value. Superb service. This is one of the few restaurants in Alex Lobrano’s “Hungry for Paris” guide with an “A” rating, and this is why we decided to pick this one from the many One Michelin star places in the city. It was good, but probably not worth repeating.
20. L’Office. Chef : Kevin O’Donnell, Present. Another American chef run place. Very nice dinner, just not comparable with the places above. 33 Euros pp dinner menu.
21. Racines2. Chef: Unknown. This place was the only foul of the trip! (not a bad hitting average) we only stumbled upon it because we didn’t have dinner plans that night and we asked a cook from yamTcha what his favorite places where in that neighborhood. It is also a “frenchie substitute” according to Paris by Mouth? It couldn’t even substitute the bread and butter. I can cook better than this on a bad day. Very poor.
22. Breizh Cafe: Only at the bottom of the list for not being a proper restaurant but this place is amazing! Best crepe and galletes you will ever have. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so be careful but this is the place to have your mid afternoon snack when wondering through Le Marais!
Other memorable food items worth mentioning are the ice creams at Berthillon, just about anything that comes out of the ovens at Ble Sucre, the macaroons at Pain de Sucre or La Duree, and any dessert at Lenotre. A great coffe place North of Le Marais is cafe Charlot, very cool place to have a drink or coffee.
There were a few places we couldn’t get to that are on the hit list for the next trip, (hopefully soon). There are
- Vivant Table
- Le Pantruche
- Fish La Boussonerie
- Le Galopin
- Le Baratin
- Le Comptoir de Relais
- Au Passage
- Pierre Gagnaire